Jonathan Tucker in KINGDOM | © 2017 Audience Network

Jonathan Tucker in KINGDOM | © 2017 Audience Network

In KINGDOM, which had its series finale Wednesday August 2 on Audience Network after three seasons, Jonathan Tucker plays Jay Kulina. Jay is a mixed martial arts fighter who is a master of self-sabotage – he battles with alcohol, drugs and his Los Angeles gym owner/promoter father Alvy (Frank Grillo), not necessarily in that order.

Tucker, originally from Massachusetts, has played a wide variety of roles in films and television. His credits include the 2003 remake of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH, a series lead in THE BLACK DONNELLYS and arcs on PARENTHOOD, HANNIBAL and JUSTIFIED, the last as the young rural villain Boon.

ASSIGNMENT X: How would you describe Jay’s progression from the beginning of KINGDOM to where he starts Season 3?

JONATHAN TUCKER: One of the joys of playing this character is that his highs are so high, his lows are so low. It’s also the trappings of an addict. When you look at the progression of an addict, you see somebody who is constantly in a cycle of sobriety and addiction, of his peaks and these extraordinary valleys. So it’s more of a cyclical experience than it is a progression.

AX: Earlier, you were talking about a speech made by a ten-year MMA champion …

TUCKER: That speech is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard. You should look it up. His name is Dominic Cruz. And if you don’t understand what’s so profound about this sport, the crucible that it puts you through, that experience, it’s just made so clear in this one speech by this one fighter.

AX: You had said that he talked about how fighters should fight for the experience, rather than to win titles. It seems like a job where you literally throw your body into it, whether it’s MMA or acting, would be like any sort of a creative thing. That is, actors generally act because they like acting, not just to get good reviews …

TUCKER: Right. I think if you look at where we are as a show on our third season, the thing I’m most proud of is that I’d argue that we are throwing harder punches, taking bigger swings, than almost any other family drama on the air. I think that’s analogous to fighting, in the sense that you really have to put it all on the line, and we’re certainly trying to do that for this final season.

I think that we need to play every day, every moment, every scene, like it’s our last. It’s the same way, even though a basketball player in the script might know what the score is going to be, you’re still fighting for every ball, every jump shot, that we need to play as hard as we possibly can. We need to, in this third season, play like a final third round in a fight. We need to give it everything we have.

AX: By the end of Season 2, Jay was pretty beaten up. Is Jay, or indeed you as the actor playing him, coming into Season 3 with any lingering injuries?

TUCKER: That’s one of the best things that I learned when we started this show. I tore the cartilage off of my rib training for the show, and I called one of our coaches, and I said, “I’m concerned about this, going into shooting this thing.”And he said, “Every fighter fights injured. Every single one who walks in to fight a professional or amateur fight is injured in some way, shape or form.” And when he said that, it sunk in – I took it as both physical and emotional. All of us are injured people, we’re all fighting every day, with our scars, with our tweaks, with previous injuries, and we’re trying to get through each day the best that we can. Which is why I think this show has been so rewarding for me, personally and professionally. Physically, Jay is doing okay. But like an addict, the more you stand up, like a little baby, the harder the fall when you end up not succeeding in the way in which you had hoped.

AX: How do you feel about Jay’s relationship with his mom?

TUCKER: Well, having a tight-knit environment, it’s a powder keg. Because you’re not just trying to help the other person, you’re also seeing yourself reflected in them. And it’s not always a pretty picture. I think so much about the word “shame” is deeply intertwined with being an addict. You can’t have shame unless you reconcile or recognize your own true self. And until you truly understand, “This is who I am, this is what I’ve done,” or “This is what I’m doing,” and accepted that, you can’t be ashamed of it. That’s why shame is such a challenging entity, and I think there’s extraordinary shame in Jay, and I think he has been allowed to see his true self oftentimes as reflected in his mother.

AX: Is part of why Jay wants to fight, wants to be hit, is because he is ashamed?

TUCKER: Partially. And there’s a certain physical part of that. When [Jay] had this big breakup with a girlfriend, I started hitting myself. That was having done all the work for the character, and that’s what came out on the day, this self-flagellation. There are a lot of those issues with the show and with the character. But I know that Jay sees the cage and the fighting as a place of discipline. It’s an outlet for him that allows him to find a sense of self-confidence, and therefore not use. So it’s a triangle of self-confidence, discipline and addiction.

AX: To research Jay’s addiction, did you talk to addicts …?

TUCKER: Yeah. I got some good insights [into] alcoholism, drug use, all the prerequisite stuff that one delves into. Addiction can be an eating disorder, it can be drugs, it can be alcohol, it can be sex, it can be violence. It’s somebody who’s unable to control themselves around a certain thing. It’s a ménage a trois – it’s me, and it’s alcohol, and it’s you. So in point of fact, just understanding that relationship is what allows you to play any addict with a sense of veracity.

[An addict is] always wrestling with something on their shoulder. When somebody who’s dealing with an eating disorder looks at a piece of food, it’s going, “You don’t have to eat that. If you want, eat it. But I’m going to be here for you. I’ve been here for you since you were twelve years old. I’ve been here in your worst times, in your best times. I will be here with you ten years from now. If your boyfriend leaves you, your mom dies, I’ll be here. And you’ll find me, and I’ll give you what you need. So if you eat the pizza, we’ll deal with that, and I’ll deal with that with you. And if you don’t eat the pizza, I’m still here.” And so there’s that relationship, because it feels like a person in your life. That’s the sort of thing that is most interesting to me in understanding addiction and addicts.

And also, eating disorders are a whole other issue. You have to eat every day, so it’s a little different than heroin, for instance, where you’ve got to seek it out and find it and go through withdrawal when it’s gone. But the issue of, “I’m not living my true sense of self, my soul isn’t fully controlling what I do,” [whether you use] or not use. Just not using is an effort in itself. So the idea that you’re wrestling with not doing something, it’s fascinating to me. And when it comes back to the idea of shame, because when you finally recognize when you’re purging over a toilet as a bulimic, or the bag of cocaine is done, or you’re throwing up and you’re hung over, you finally look at yourself, literally or spiritually, and you say, “This is me. I am really this person.” And that allows you to be ashamed of yourself or what you’ve done, or seek help – there’s lots of different steps, obviously – but that idea of recognizing who you really are at a certain point, that’s what I find most intriguing about playing Jay.

AX: Where is Jay in terms of the philosophy espoused by Dominic Cruz?

TUCKER: He’s pretty far away. For me, the story in many ways is, I [as Jay] am my father, and [Frank Grillo as Jay’s father Alvy] is me. And the difference is, I recognize that I’m a failure, I jeopardize my own success. I recognize all of these issues about myself, about the world around me, and he just doesn’t. I think Frank spoke to that really well, saying the biggest problem with [Alvy], his tragic flaw, is narcissism. He refuses to acknowledge any of these things, that he’s drinking too much, that he’s cheating on his girl, that he wasn’t a good father and he’s not a great human being. And when I start to ultimately see that, I start to think and believe that I actually am my dad, that all this work to move away from him, and now, as far as I’ve gone, I feel like I’ve come back in a circle again. I recognize, I’ve worked so hard to not be my father, but now, here I am. I can do all the math, and all the math adds up to, you’re your dad. You’re not a good dad, or a good husband or partner, you’re not a good brother, you’re not a good person, every person who comes near you who wants to help you, you hurt them, you cause pain. So that’s what we’re getting to see in the third season that’s most interesting to me.

AX: In playing an MMA fighter, were there things that came naturally to you?

TUCKER: I’ve really gotten into muay thai. This will be one of those jobs where, thirty, forty years from now, I’ll say, “Well, back when I did this show KINGDOM, that’s what got me really turned on to fighting.” I don’t actually spar or hit anybody, but I train every day. I started because of the show, but it’s a gift from the show that I’ll take on with me. I love training. I love going to a new town, bringing my bag, walking into a gym. Strangely, for somebody who’s not familiar with the world, there’s no greater, quicker family to find than one in a combat sports gym. The moment you cross the threshold, no matter how much you weigh or what color your skin or what your ethnicity, or what your sexual background is, no matter who you are, you can walk into a gym in Minnesota, a gym in Boston, a gym in San Diego, another country – I just was in Japan at a boxing gym – and the moment you cross over that door threshold, you’re a family member for them. It is so contrary to what I originally thought about this world and this group of people.

AX: If the gym is such a supportive environment, why isn’t Jay benefiting more from it?

TUCKER: [As Jay], my relationship with my father is so acrimonious that that gym is tainted in a deep, deep way by him. It’s like the house where you grew up. You’re familiar with it, you know it, there are a lot of elements you love about it, you are who you are because of it, but there’s a lot of pain and there’s a lot of issues that need to be reconciled and they probably won’t, before it becomes a beneficial, soothing place to be.

AX: And Jay doesn’t feel like he can reinvent himself in another gym?

TUCKER: Well, I certainly try to reinvent myself in Season 3, not through fighting, but it’s hard to reinvent yourself.

AX: Were there any things that you actually had to get the hang of in terms of movement?

TUCKER: Yeah. For me, every character is a physical challenge. Everybody walks differently, everybody uses their hands differently, eats differently, hears things differently. So when people say, “It’s a real physical role,” every role is physical. But sure, there are technical aspects of this that I’ve had to work on. We have the best coaches in the whole game. There’s nobody better than Greg Jackson and Joe Daniel Stevenson and Juan Archuleta. Every fighter on our show is a UFC fighter, or an MMA fighter. All of the background [extras] are real amateur or professional fighters. So the bar is set very high for us every single take by the people around us.

AX: Do you enjoy doing all of that physical preparation for the character?

TUCKER: I like goals. What’s so attractive about it is, it gives you a North Star, and every day, you work towards that North Star.

AX: Do you ever have to have a stunt double?

TUCKER: Yeah, sure. My ego is involved in every one of these fight sequences, [but not using a double and risking serious injury] I think I would be doing a detriment to the service of the story and the character and the production.

AX: You shoot KINGDOM where it’s set, in the Valley and Venice, California …

TUCKER: It adds to that authenticity. When you walk onto one of our sets, everything is practical. The beer bottle that’s right there probably will have a little beer at the bottom. So if I whip out a cigarette, I know that when I’m done with it, at one point, whether it’s in the script or not, I can throw it into that beer bottle, and it will be extinguished by the beer. The dirt is really dirt. The boxing gloves are really boxing gloves. When we kick, we connect a lot. And that authenticity, it honors the characters that we’re trying to bring to life, but it also honors the fighters and their families and their friends and the team, which is the bar that we were trying to set from Day One.

AX: Do you have any thoughts about your time on JUSTIFIED?

TUCKER: I just got a link for this [JUSTIFIED] fan group who are doing reenactments. They’re shooting scenes from the show. The first one they did was me walking in with Kaitlyn Dever’s character with the dead snake on the ground. I was just, from the bottom of my heart, really touched by this. I thought it was such an honor. Because we’re storytellers – that’s what binds us together as human beings, that’s what allows us homo sapiens to be the dominant species in the world, because we have this collective fiction. And when we bind to a story, and when we sit around the modern-day campfire, we take these things really seriously. We see ourselves reflected in them, we see our own struggles and hopes in these stories and characters. So when you get a confirmation that it resonates, it’s extraordinarily gratifying.

[JUSTIFIED creator Graham Yost] is an amazing guy. He’s a similar sort of show runner to [KINGDOM creator Byron Balasco. His writers’ room is very diverse, not just in the kinds of people that he had, but a lot of them were fiction writers, writers of novels and short stories. Then there were traditional television writers. But the thing that really unites Byron and Graham Yost, and also someone like Bryan Fuller, is that they are so confident in their own skills that they allow, and they create an environment for, different artists to contribute in their own way without any sense of fear. A lot of show runners are not confident in themselves, and that’s shown in the fact that they create a fear-based set, a fear-based writers’ room, a fear-based place in which to work. And people don’t take the big risks that they might ordinarily. And you don’t get the same quality of work from them, you don’t get the magic. Real magical work happens when people feel enabled and empowered to be their truest self.

AX: What did you do with Bryan Fuller?

TUCKER: I did a pilot that didn’t end up going forward, I did HANNIBAL with him, and then I did an episode of AMERICAN GODS that I will come back on for the second season. I play Low Key Lyesmith, the god of trickery and mischief and destruction. And we had a really good time with it. But Bryan is the kind of person who says, “Here’s a few guide posts, and I’m going to hire you, and I want you to lead me down somewhere – I don’t know where it’s going to go.” And he’s always been extraordinarily supportive of me taking big risks.

AX: Is there anything different in playing a character like Low Key, who is not entirely of this world?

TUCKER: Yeah, I had a lot of fun with this idea that the physical rules of the world that you and I have become accustomed to don’t have to restrict this character. And it was fun to be able to see things in the air, to know what’s happening in the future, to be able to leave hints for the lead character in the show that I am keenly aware how it’s going to work out because I have a touch of celestial power. But it’s also fun to be part of a project that so many people love. This book has really resonated with readers across the world, and it was written so long ago, yet it’s almost more relevant today than when it was written, is the war between the gods of yesteryear and the gods of today, greed and digital technology.

AX: Is it more interesting to play a character who is giving in to his nature, or fighting his nature?

TUCKER: Because this character is so instinctual, he’s so visceral, that animal work that actors do pays off so well in a show like this. Jay’s a hyena, for the most part. And there are a lot of reasons why, but they’re some of the fiercest predators on the plains, and they’re also completely underestimated. It’s the push and pull, for sure. I have more fun feeding into the nurture, feeding into the animal. There’s a scene where I’m eating steaks and I end up tossing the steak, but just kind of ON THE WATERFRONT, Marlon Brando, just the juice and the fat and the meat and the grit of the whole thing, and the bones and the cigarettes and the booze, it’s a lot of fun.

AX: And what would you most like people to know about KINGDOM Season 3?

TUCKER: This is the third round of a championship fight, and we are hitting as hard as we possibly can.

This interview was conducted during Audience Network’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour.

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rticle: KINGDOM Interview – Actor Jonathan Tucker talks about the series finale

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